Rewards and student motivation

Diverse Elementary ClassResearchers at the University of Tennessee have looked at the short- and long-term effects that extrinsic motivation (rewards given by the teacher) has on student performance and self-motivation. Ernest Brewer, John Dunn and Patricia Olszewski’s purpose in surveying the research literature was to help teachers recognize and avoid the potential harm which poorly designed reward systems can have.

Many studies have shown that extrinsic rewards, such as token-economy systems, effectively decrease disruptive or inappropriate behavior while increasing attention to academic tasks. Occasionally, achievement has improved as well.

However, research has also shown that rewards to not necessarily increase the desired behavior, and that in some situations rewards can, in fact, have negative effects. Some research indicates that when rewards are unscheduled and, therefore, unanticipated by the student, no negative effect results.

According to recent theories, rewards are a form of feedback which do two things: they attempt to control the student and they provide information to him. In these two ways, rewards affect a student’s perceptions and feelings of competence and self-determination.

Harmful effects

Inappropriate use of extrinsic rewards, according to Brewer, Dunn and Olszewski, may have two types of negative effects. First, rewards may have a negative effect on learning. Secondly, rewards can adversely affect a student’s interest in or attitude towards the task.

Some researchers conclude that detrimental results from rewards seem to occur when two conditions exist: (1) when the task itself is of sufficient interest that a reward becomes superfluous, and (2) when the task is open-ended and the steps to a solution are not obvious.

Some studies surveyed suggest that extrinsic motivation may affect a student’s perception of his or her own capabilities. Rewards appear to have an adverse effect when the student perceives that the teacher is controlling a learning activity that he feels competent to do himself.

Rewards that are contingent on the student’s achievement are less likely to have an adverse effect. However, when rewards are given simply for participating in the task, the reward appears to have a negative impact on the student’s belief in his own ability.

Praise for effort rather than achievement under conditions in which a child’s ego is involved, tends to induce a feeling of helplessness or lack of self-confidence in the child. In other words, when the assignment appears easy to the student, and the teacher offers him a reward for doing it or praises him for doing this easy task, the message may be, “My teacher doesn’t think I’m capable.”

Certain types of less structured learning (insightful, creative, incidental) may be more susceptible to harmful effects from rewards.

Keeping students in control

Research is needed on the source of intrinsic or self-motivation. One theory [Koestner, Zuckerman and Koestner (1987)] holds that intrinsic motivation arises from the need to be self-confident and self-determining. Based on this theory, rewards which make the child feel like he is controlled by others and which in turn make him feel that he may not be competent, will decrease his intrinsic motivation.

Brewer et al. report that certain kinds of information signal a “potential for self control”: that is, when the learning environment includes a significant amount of choice and freedom, when demands are kept to a minimum, when the outcome is contingent on effort and when events are predictable.

Under these circumstances, students tend to take an active part in problem solving, choose more difficult problems and have greater confidence in the outcome. Students also tend, given these conditions, to be more persistent and direct their attention to developing necessary skills. It appears, therefore, that when a student feels he is in control and has choices, that this makes him feel capable.

Brewer et al. state that research has not revealed a direct, casual relationship between extrinsic rewards and self-motivation and they caution against viewing reward systems simplistically. Research in this area is extremely varied, in part, because it has been carried out by professionals in diverse fields of study. Many studies involve older populations of students and, therefore, may not apply to younger groups of children.


By and large, research indicates that teachers need to be aware of the potentially harmful effects of reward systems.

Superfluous rewards – rewarding students when the task is sufficiently interesting in itself, can easily be avoided. Activities which involve sequential problem-solving and emphasize the process rather than the product or reward, encourage students to be actively involved in the subject. Structuring a task in this way appears to stimulate the kind of verbal feedback conducive to developing feelings of competence and self-determination in students.

How and when a reward is given, it seems, tells students something about the teacher’s opinion of their ability, which affects how children feel about themselves. Ultimately, it affects their motivation to learn.

Brewer et al. believe that “a teacher’s primary responsibility remains the enhancement of students’ intrinsic interest in learning…” Extrinsic rewards may not be inherently detrimental to students’ interest in a subject, but the context in which rewards are given affects student motivation and should be carefully considered when implementing a token economy or reward system.

The critical balance between external control and internal motivation of students is a complex issue and research in this area is continuing.


“Extrinsic Reward and Intrinsic Motivation: The Vital Link Between Classroom Management and Student Performance” Journal of Education for Teaching Volume 14, Number 2, p. 151.

Published in ERN March/April 1989 Volume 2 Number 2

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